How to Restore Antique Furniture

Did you ever come across a beautiful piece of furniture at an estate sale, antique store or a garage sale that was in poor shape and thought to yourself, “Can this be saved?”

There are many ways to breathe new life into old wooden furniture. We’ll cover the basics to get you inspired. Make sure you have any important woodworking hand tools you need before getting started.

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First, ask yourself how big of a project you are looking to dive into – a quick one day project, a slightly bigger one that will take up a few days or a full on restoration project that may or may not include carving and take months to find the right matching hardware?

Will you want to restore the wood that is covered in paint or varnish? This will require stripping the furniture by using chemical strippers and stripping tools, #0000 steel wool, cotton rags and a variety of tools depending on the intricacy of the furniture piece you’re restoring. This is a messy process that requires a designated working space, preferably outside or with good ventilation, and will take several days.

Does the piece have a lot of detail? The more ornate, the more time you’ll need to dedicate to refinishing.

a person using a pair of pliers to undo a bolt inside an antique box

You’ll need safety gear as well, including thick rubber gloves, eye protection and a mask and some work clothes you don’t mind damaging. 

New cotton wiping cloths are very important, so be sure to have a lot of them on hand. Specialty stores offer bulk boxes and even have reclaimed options.

Several options of chemicals are available on the market, including pastes that have no harsh fumes. Visit your local hardware store to see what’s best to use for your project. 

Follow the instructions on the stripping chemicals, applying the paste in recommended coats using a brush or an applicator tool. For small decorative areas and trim, you’ll want to use the brush to get the paste into every detail.

Depending on the thickness and composition of the coating on the furniture, as well as the chemicals you choose, the paint or varnish softening process may take anywhere from 30 minutes to 12+ hours.

Once the old varnish has dissolved, you’ll need to scrape and remove the residue and use scrapers for flat surfaces. For the carved details, try experimenting with different tools like styluses or embossers to get the paint cleared away from grooves and notches. 

To “wash” the remaining residue, use a cotton rag and recommended mineral spirits and remove any remaining bits of old paint or varnish.

Using the mineral spirits will neutralize the wood – and stop the stripping process. Once all the old paint or varnish is removed, thoroughly clean with the spirits. It’s important to familiarize yourself with directions for neutralizer that your chemical stripper requires since they are not all the same and getting the wrong one could further damage your furniture piece.

Wipe the surface clean with cotton rags and let stand for 24 hours or according to directions on your chemicals. 

Next, using a very fine sanding block, you’ll want to smooth out the wood surface of any fibers and rough areas caused by the stripping process. Work in the direction of the wood grain. Try fine files or sanding sticks to smooth out the intricate details. Experiment with detailing tools to get the desired result.

Get Sanding Sticks for Your Project

a person using a file on a wooden chair leg

Some wooden furniture may have holes or deep dings that will need to be patched. Use wood fill, wood repair kits or wood putty. You may have to get very artistic to repair ornate details using carving tools to recreate the missing pieces. 

To prepare your furniture piece for the final finish, start with a sealant. These protect the wood and create a base for the stain or paint. Read the sealant directions as you may have to use sandpaper to smooth out the surface again. Definitely keep those cotton wiping cloths around for this step. 

Select a new finish for your piece, whether wood stain or paint. Choose something that will work with the item’s shape and features. 

Wood stains are a perfect option if you want to showcase and enhance the natural grain. There are so many colors to choose from ranging from “antique white” to “cognac red” or “ebony.” You’re bound to get inspired further! 

Another option is chalk paint. This has become very trendy in the last few years and brought new life into many furniture pieces. It looks great and is relatively easy to use. As the Annie Sloan website states, “Pop open the tin, roll up your sleeves, dip in your brush and apply paint to furniture.” 

Restoring furniture is a hobby with some investment but major rewards. Have fun!